Sunday, May 24, 2009

My Response to the Grognardia essay "More Than a Feeling"

James Maliszewski posted this essay over on Grognardia, which really rubbed me the wrong way. Which lead me to try to write a paragraph in response, which lead to this response. I figured I'd post it here, as the topic might generate some decent discussion.

His essay is here.

GROGNARDIA: More Than a Feeling

My response is below. I couldn't post it over there because it was too long.

I think the very idea of a rigid definition flies in the face of what the old school renaissance represents. Plus, it is totally subjective as to what old school is. It varies from person to person. Some just want the nostalgic feeling of playing an old game they used to play when they were 13. Some just want fast resolution with less rolls. Some want megadungeons. Some define it as strict adherence to a certain ruleset or clone. Who cares?

I guess my question is, what does it matter? If someone asks you what old school is, define it however you want to. It is different for everyone and will be defined differently by everyone.

Even that 13 page essay by Finch which summed up what old school was all about

listed some things that not every group in 1976 did. OD&D was, from what I understand, the most heavily houseruled game in existence. Hence AD&D. Look at your own game James, and the huge changes you implemented to the core rules.

This old school thing has a life of its own, and it is driven first and foremost by FEELING. People felt dissatisfied with what they were playing, and wanted to either capture or recapture another feeling while playing. For some it was a feeling they used to have when playing at age 13, for some it was trying to feel what those others were talking about.

This game is driven first and foremost by feeling. We don't play it for any other reason. It's a feeling of fun flavored with various aspects of whichever version of the game we are playing. To the extent that a ruleset or adventure or DM flavors that feeling with something considered by players to be old school, its completely subjective as to what that thing is which gives the feeling, because the feeling is subjective.

You can't objectively create through definition that which creates a subjective feeling in a player.

I think in trying to define it you will fulfill the prediction made by EN Shook on Lord of the Green Dragons here:

Wherein he basically predicts that old school degenerate into fundamentalism. This post of yours seems to be leading the charge.

I have to ask what purpose would a definition serve? So you can give the 2 minute elevator sales speech to someone using terms consistent with everyone else? To what ends? So the game grows? So more people play? So more sales are made of old school clones? What's the ultimate goal you are shooting for? What's the ultimate vision you have?

The only thing you say as to a reason why it matters is:

“If the old school is just a feeling, then it's purely subjective and beyond our capacity to argue for.”

And “Likewise, when a player of such games claims he's doing so "in an old school style," I have no recourse but to accept him at his word and move on, because no argument could possibly be offered to disprove his feeling that he's playing an old school game.”

And “If one actually believes, as I do, that games like OD&D, Tunnels & Trolls, Empire of the Petal Throne, and so forth offer something unique that no game published in the last 20 years can match, then we ought not to rest our case too heavily on nebulous quasi-emotional impressions. I think there are enough clear, rational, and unambiguous arguments in favor of the old school that there's very little need to invoke feelings at all.”

What’s this big need you have to argue in favor of a particular game or group of games? Who cares? To argue implies that you think you’re right. And to a certain extent, you may be. For some people. But it’s all subjective and based on the feelings those people would get if they played those games. Nobody plays a game because of the nature of the mechanics of it. They play because the mechanics help them to create a game that makes them feel good playing it. If you think those games might do that for a person, then just recommend those rulesets to those people. No definition needed. No need to argue

The reasons you like old school games are yours, and might be shared by many people. However, your reasons for liking old school games may not appeal to a ton of people who nonetheless play older rulesets. To think that your reasons are the right and true reasons to the extent that you feel the need to fix definitions so that you can better argue your case that old school games have a lot to offer, I think you slip into arrogance. People argue because each thinks they are right. How can ou be right when this whole thing is subjective and driven by feelings?

You can't control this thing. It will grow with or without a definition. People will keep checking out different boards, games, blogs, and make their own definition of old school based on a feeling. They might even start up a game and call it old school–and the game will be something completely different than yours. Those players then have a definition of old school in their heads. They spread that definition far and wide.

Old School to me is like a constantly mutating virus, changing all the time by interacting with its host's DNA, the DM's and Players, and then getting passed on to others. Rather than making them feel sick, this virus makes them feel good. All based on feelings. Who cares if the virus is different from one player or DM to another, as long as it makes them feel good?

If people ask me what an old school game is I just point them in the direction of certain boards, blogs, rulesets, essays and clones. I let them figure it out for themselves. Sometimes their definition of what old school is comes close to mine, sometimes its radically different. But when they say they are laying an old school game now thanks to their investigation of the various websites and games, and I see that they are happy, I say good for them.

I don’t see how your strict definition of what old school is actually grows the old school renaissance. Since there are so many definitions out there, most of which seem to be based primarily on feelings, if you exclude them because they don’t share your definition, you just shrink the members of the old school renaissance as defined by you. Which leads to accusations of bad/fun/wrong. Leading to alienation. Leading to people dismissing us as a bunch of crotchety old people who don’t welcome new people unless they enter the renaissance on our terms because of our definitions. Is that the result you are looking for?

One last point I want to make is that feelings drive this industry. Feelings either for or against are what makes people do or not do something. People are not rational creatures. You assume you can lay out a Mr. Spock style rational argument in favor of one system and get people to play? What's more convincing, an essay based on clear definitions of something laying out the logical reasons why something is good? Or a friend, who when asked why they like their particular style of old school game, gushes out with joy and enthusiasm all kinds of subjective reasons, but puts them out there with such a FEELING of happiness that its infectious and gets that friend to ask if they can join in their game? Which option will grow the old school renaissance more?


The Rusty Battle Axe said...

To which the congregation said "Amen."

taichara said...

I could not possibly offer you more praise and applause for this. You've hit the proverbial nail on the head with this one.

May I link to this on my blog?

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

Joe, The only thing you forgot was...

The exclamation mark... RJK

Badelaire said...

Definitely time to add this blog to my blogroll...

Badmike said...

Nice Joe. I'm going to post this week on this subject and I'll probably link to your blog because you said it far better than I would....I'll just be examine a few points of my own.

JoetheLawyer said...

Thanks for all the kind words guys. I finally figured out how to post comments to my own Blog. Only took me 10 hours to figure it out. Apparently making the comment box a popup is the way to go. Embedding it on the page gives problems for some reason.

Feel free to link away.


Giga boy said...

"Nobody plays a game because of the nature of the mechanics of it. They play because the mechanics help them to create a game that makes them feel good playing it."

which actually means

"People play a game because the nature of its mechanics help them to create a game that makes them feel good playing it."

So, people play games for its mechanics.
At least I do. I do not like some gamesystems, so I don't play them, they feel bad/wrong.
Mechanics matter for the feeling.
Definitions might as well.

noisms said...

I agree 100%. I absolutely don't get the point of try to objectively define what's good or bad about anything to do with a game.

Andreas Davour said...

Giga boy says something here I'd likt to reinforce.

While I think the main thrust of this post os right, there is actually a situation where a discussion about the roots of the feeling is useful. If you want to design an old school game you probably need some kind of definition, since a game that explicitly support a certain mode of play will be more suitable for generating that specific feeling you might be aiming for.

I kind of think that point have been missed among all the arguments whether James was arrogant/exclusive/just-plain-wrong and so on.

Anonymous said...

Here is why a somewhat vague definition of what "old school" means is important.

Inviting new players to a game. Free time is at a premium, If I am going to book 4 hours off for a game that someone describes as "Old school" or "Not old school at all" (depending on my leanings) I want some Idea of what they are talking about.

If they tell me its an "Old school game" and its D&D 4th Ed. full of Dragonborn Ninja's and house rules from a story game so characters can't die except at certain plot points,

I would feel cheated, even if "they feel its an old school game". Way to waste my free time, I could have worked overtime, had more fun and made over a hundred bucks.

Exact minutae are not important, but some details are.

Badmike said...

"If they tell me its an "Old school game" and its D&D 4th Ed. full of Dragonborn Ninja's and house rules from a story game so characters can't die except at certain plot points,"

Why would a "definitive" criteria for Old School change that? People are free to say and make whatever assumptions they wish, regardless if there is a set of rules out there governing behavior or definition. Instead of a exact criteria to go by, the guy in the example needs instead a good swift kick in the ass...:)

Anonymous said...

Again, note I did not say "exact criteria" , Im not sure anyone has.

But vague guidelines are not that hard. If you think old school gaming is 100% subjective then there is no reason to discuss it or to use the words "Old School Gaming", instead just decribe what type of gaming you are refering to at the moment with actual details. Otherwise you are just sowing confusion.

If something doesn't have even a vague meaning, then using it as a term doesn't help conversation, it kills it. Its mindless jargon no different than corporate management speak.

"Old School" should not be the gaming equivalent of saying we need to "think outside the box" to "push the envelope" and "get the best of breed" without "reinventing the wheel" by "Maximizing our synergy"

K. Bailey said...

"You can't objectively create through definition that which creates a subjective feeling in a player."

This is essentially wrong.

A horror game seeks to create a certain feeling in a player. What you play may or may not be a horror game, but that doesn't mean that the term is meaningless or undefinable or whatever, or that you should glower at and shout down people who want to have a go at puzzling out the elements of a horror game.

And more importantly, for the purposes of someone who is interested in running a horror game or figuring out why their CoC game seems not to have any horror whatsoever, it is absolutely helpful (and possible) to have some kind of clear space out there where the elements of a horror game can be felt out murkily and discussed to figure out what makes them tick, without people jumping in all the time to scream "fundies! fundies!" or taking yet another opportunity to shout out how they don't give a crap what the names for stuff are--they play their horror-ish games however they like! Or, yes, even to "add" that horror is a meaningless or objectively undefinable term based on some subjective feeling so let's just shrug and move on. Or all that other unhelpful rot.

Nero said...

Great post!

Wally said...

Responding to Maliszewski as if he were a scholar/historian/analyst is futile. Ultimately, he's a nostalgist dressing his universalizing handwaving in area knowledge and charming little anecdotes. His skin-deep 'analysis' of D&D 4e is grounds enough to discard his genealogy of gaming as self-serving impressionism - a smart articulate reactionary is still a reactionary.

That said, I think you're wrong about play styles emerging from very specific game-mechanical constructions, and a fast-growing body of game-studies literature backs my feeling. But the enemy of one's enemy is, well...something or other. So: kudos.

Andreas Davour said...

I'm curious about that "fast-growing body of game-studies literature", since I'd like to read it!

I have encountered games where the play floundered because the rules didn't push us in any direction, and I think play styles can indeed be formed by specific game mechanics. Just look at many games that have come out of the Forge. They are all about that!